The limits of bounties in the war on terror
London - Within days of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, US President George W. Bush said Osama bin Laden would be “brought to justice” and he reminded the world, “There’s an old poster out west that says ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’.”
Bush’s reaction surprised anyone who had thought Westerns were part of the past but such posters, often advertising a reward, became part of the “war on terror”.
“This was a cultural American phenomenon coming out of the Old West, you’d have the poster with the bounty on it and the bounty hunter would go and bring back the bad guy,” Ibrahim Warde, professor of international business at Tufts University, Massachusetts, told The Arab Weekly.
But even with the United States posting bounties totalling $20 million for four senior figures of the Islamic State (ISIS) on May 6th, Warde, who has long studied the financial aspects of the “war on terror” and whose book, The Price of Fear, was published in 2007, is far from convinced the ways of the Wild West have transferred successfully.
“My take on it is that the bounties don’t work so well,” he said.
Secrecy, Warde concedes, does make this hard to judge. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s recent controversial account in the London Review of Books of bin Laden’s death, suggests the al-Qaeda leader was found not through tracking couriers, as the White House claimed, but from a tip-off from a former senior Pakistani intelligence officer in return for much of the $25 million bounty on bin Laden’s head.
But that would not be the largest payment. The US government says it gave $30 million for information leading to Uday and Qusay Hussein, Saddam’s sons, who were killed in a gun battle with US forces shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The US government’s Rewards for Justice programme has a website with news of successes and pictures of the fugitives, including ISIS leaders for whom bounties were posted in May.
Among the largest is the one for Abdel Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli at $7 million, ahead of spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani at $5 million, but behind ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at $10 million. None is priced as high, however, as the $25 million for Ayman al- Zawahiri, leader of al-Qaeda since bin Laden’s death in 2011.
Warde pointed out that Rewards for Justice, which dates to 1984, originated, like much of the “war on terror”, in the “war on drugs”. Paying a bounty for drug traffickers was an obvious recourse, he told The Arab Weekly, because “where there were seizures of property, a bounty hunter or informer could get as much as 25%”.
And, as Warde argues in The Price of Fear, following the flow of cash proved an effective way of detecting the flow of drugs in the opposite direction.
Similarly, the American idea of offering percentage financial rewards to whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing is generating interest in Europe. But given the relatively low amounts of money involved in even high-profile attacks by groups like al-Qaeda, an approach based on finance has proved less effective in the “war on terror”, even if it has helped generate publicity.
“The theatrics are all about trying to create a sense of victory,” said Warde. “One of the unchallenged aspects of the war on terror is that money is the oxygen of terror, whereas the most recent statistics I’ve seen, between 2001 and now, suggest there has been a five-fold increase in terrorism. The argument that going after the money would put an end to terrorism is not borne out.”
This is dark territory. “It’s murkier than a single bounty hunter tipping off the Americans,” said Warde. “There are always a number of claimants for the money, even people who are remotely related to the case ask for some.” It is also dangerous territory. Nawaf al- Zaidan, the cousin of Saddam who betrayed Uday and Qusay, fled Iraq with his family immediately after they were shot, knowing well that threats to kill him were not idle. ISIS has released many photos or videos of “spies” it has executed.
Whatever the likelihood of bounties working, there are a growing number of voices calling on the Obama administration to examine the political and social roots of ISIS.
According to David Petraeus, the US military commander in Iraq in 2007-08, this means recognising Sunni Arab discontent over the country’s direction under a Shia-led order in Baghdad.
Looking back over the whole “war on terror”, Warde argues that neither bounties nor chasing “terrorist finance” can ever substitute for politics. “With bin Laden, the whole political aspect of his support was ignored in favour of a money-based perspective,” he said.